Dear College Students: Don’t Dismiss Jewish Communal Life Just Yet

There may be much to react to in New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg’s recent piece about how the current President of the United States has “revived the Jewish left,” but I’ll leave to others the task of a full response. Conditioned, perhaps, by reading the piece while monitoring a wave of photographs on my Facebook feed depicting friends and family members bringing their offspring to college campuses, I’m still enmeshed in this three-sentence paragraph:

Alyssa Rubin, a 25-year-old organizer with Never Again Action, told me that in college, she had little interest in Jewish communal life, much of which seemed to revolve around support for Israel. But in the months leading up to the 2016 election, as Trump spouted rhetoric that smacked of fascism and white nationalists grew giddy at their new relevance, ‘I had never thought about my Judaism more,’ she said. For the first time, anti-Semitism seemed an immediate, urgent threat.

What troubled me most was the implication—an idea that I’ve encountered elsewhere and worry may have been inculcated into the current flock of incoming undergraduates—that “establishment” Jewish life on campus “revolves around support for Israel.” If anecdotal experiences like Rubin’s are to be given representative credence in the paper of record, let’s pause and consider another individual example. Mine.

To be sure, I’m twice Rubin’s age, and I suspect that more than years separate us. I am a grandchild of three Jewish immigrants—two of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany who met and married here in the United States, circumstances that I cannot recall ever not knowing. As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was conscious also of neo-Nazis planning to march in Skokie, Ill.; the plight of Soviet Jewry; terrorist attacks on a Paris synagogue that killed four people and wounded 46 and on a Jewish restaurant in the same city two years later that killed six and wounded 22; and the ominous incidents motivating the security measures that El Al passengers encountered decades before the September 11 attacks made similar efforts widespread. (This is a partial list.)

In short, I cannot remember a “first time” that antisemitism seemed to me “an immediate, urgent threat”; to some degree, it was always thus.

Ideally, one’s Jewish identity is grounded in positive associations. That someone “had never thought about [their Judaism] more” until faced with Trumpian rhetoric suggests a heartbreaking absence of Jewish connection and identity in the lifetime that proceeded it. For me, long before I set foot on a college campus, there was more to Judaism than antisemitism, and so having a vibrant Jewish communal life available to me was a priority as I entered my college years.

Unlike Ms. Rubin, I wasn’t disappointed.

In my experience, the campus Hillel headquartered that communal life. For starters, it offered me a prayer community. No, I wasn’t one of the students who attended every service, or even every Shabbat service. But I attended many. I even helped lead the Reform Holy Day services—also Hillel-coordinated, serving undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and other community members—on our campus.

Importantly, our Hillel also provided a model for Jewish pluralism. The Hillel building housed multiple “minyanim”: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform students held denomination-specific worship services, but otherwise—in activities, at Shabbat dinners—commingled.

My college Hillel also supported outlets to explore and cultivate Jewish creativity via art and culture. I discovered the work of Allegra Goodman—then a fellow undergraduate—during my first week on campus, when I auditioned for a role in a play that she had written. I won the role, and subsequently appeared in the play, “Oral History,” as staged by our Hillel’s Dramatic Society. One of my friends belonged to “Mizmor Shir,” a Hillel-based a capella group. At some point, I became aware of a Hillel-organized literary magazine, too.

But, wait: There’s more. Although I’ve yet to experience directly any Jewish community that doesn’t emphasize works of chesed and tikkun olam, much of the volunteer work that I pursued initially at college—taking on “Big Sister” responsibilities and then tutoring underserved children in nearby communities—I discovered outside Hillel, through the campus’s primary public-service organization. But later, Hillel helped connect me with a local elderly woman—an Austrian-Jewish Holocaust refugee—whom I visited regularly. (After I graduated and moved to another city, my younger sister, who by then was an undergraduate at the same college, “replaced” me.)

Finally, although I didn’t (and still don’t) adhere to the laws of kashrut, I took advantage of the kosher dinners that Hillel offered. Often, especially during freshman year, I brought along non-Jewish classmates, who appreciated the change of scene/cuisine from the central dining hall. During Passover, when the campus dining halls offered little more than boxes of matzah in terms of kosher-for-the-holiday-catering, Hillel teemed with those of us seeking to add a little more chametz-free variety to our diets.

Note what I haven’t yet mentioned: a focus on “support for Israel.” I’m sure that there was Israel education, and in all likelihood, outright advocacy. At the time, however, that was not a priority in my everyday life, and I cannot recall—nor can I find evidence in any of my scrapbooks—that it dominated my experience in collegiate Jewish communal life in any way. On the other hand, since these days there seems to be a veritable onslaught of anti-Israel activity on some campuses, perhaps such efforts weren’t quite as necessary back then. 

I was most active at Hillel during my first college year (when, perhaps not coincidentally, I happened to live closer to the building where its activities were centered). But the roots I established there carried through my undergraduate years and beyond. It was always reassuring to me to encounter Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold (z”l) on campus or in the nearby neighborhood; whenever he greeted me, I felt as though I was absorbing a molecule or two of his wisdom and kindness. To this day, I refer to one of my classmates, whom I met when we both prioritized experiencing a Friday night Shabbat service in Hillel’s Reform minyan when we were visiting the campus before matriculating, as “my first college friend.”

Me, with my “first college friend,” and others who remain important to me, back at our campus Hillel’s Senior Banquet shortly before graduation.

Maybe times have changed. Ms. Rubin’s remark prompted me to visit the website for my undergraduate college’s Hillel (in my day, we hadn’t yet encountered the word “website”). Yes, I found on the homepage a central tab designated “Israel” (sub-links led to other items that didn’t yet exist when I was a student: Birthright trips, for example). But alongside the Israel tab I also found equally prominent ones for “Learning” and “Worship.”

Not to mention the entire “Student Life” section, where clicking through to focus exclusively on undergraduate activities yielded Hillel-based groups and events organized around a number of affinities and interests: a local chapter of Challah for Hunger, a Krav Maga Club, a Progressive Student Alliance, and so forth. Along the lines of the Never Again Action movement with which Ms. Rubin is now associated, it’s perhaps especially notable that a group called “Sanctuary at Hillel” works to organize the campus Jewish community “to support the safety and human rights of immigrants and refugees. To this end, Sanctuary at Hillel coordinates support volunteering for other congregations that choose to host immigrants and refugees at risk of deportation.” (Lest anyone worry, kosher dining remains key, with a website section detailing options now available both on the Hillel premises and elsewhere on the campus.)

In short, it would seem that even today, “much” of what goes on at my alma mater‘s Hillel doesn’t “revolve around support for Israel.”

Maybe Ms. Rubin attended a college with less-robust Jewish communal offerings. But I hope that today’s Jewish college students—especially those first-years whose move-in-day pictures parents have been lately sharing on Facebook—aren’t put off by her remark. I hope that they have the opportunity to discover a Jewish communal life that might well be multi-faceted. It may include activism (perhaps including, but not necessarily limited to, Israel activism). It may not.

In conclusion, I plead: Dear College Students—Please just be open to the possibility that Jewish communal life on campus can lead to friendships, experiences, and memories that will last long after graduation.

It happened to me.

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